At year 150, does Canada show where religion in United States might be heading?

There’s a big Canada Day blowout coming July 1 as the northern nation celebrates its 150th anniversary

The Canadian colonies gained independence so placidly, unlike the United States, that Britain’s monarch remains the titular head of state to this day. In fact, Britain only granted Canada full power to write a constitution in 1982. The document lists "freedom of conscience and religion" first among four "fundamental" principles that echo the U.S. Bill of Rights from 191 years earlier.  

This is an ideal moment for reporters to ask experts whether secularized Canada 2017 might show where the United States is headed spiritually (and in some cases, legally). Recently, both Canada and the U.S. have seen a rise in religiously unaffiliated “nones,” 24 percent vs. 20 percent respectively.  

With Protestantism, both nations show remarkable losses for “mainline” churches that have floated leftward. Unlike the U.S. and its array of denominations, Canada was traditionally dominated by only two -- the Anglican Church of Canada, with British colonial status, and the United Church of Canada, an ambitious merger among several traditions.

Government surveys report self-identified Anglicans declined from 2,543,000 to 1,632,000 between 1971 and 2011, and for the United Church from 3,769,000 to 2,008,000.

In-house numbers are even more devastating. The Anglicans’ active membership was only 545,957 in an out-of-date 2007 report. The United Church listed 436,292 in 2014 with average attendance of 144,852. Canada’s Evangelical Protestants are a small if vigorous factor compared with the U.S. situation.

A fifth of today’s Canadians were born elsewhere, versus an estimated 13 percent in the U.S.  Canada’s immigrants, heavily Asian, foster a significant rise of non-Christian religions, and 20 percent report no affiliation versus only 10 percent of the U.S. foreign-born. Many U.S. Spanish-speakers identify with Catholicism or the robust Evangelical minority.

The English-Spanish U.S. cultural divide is far less troublesome than Canada’s split between English- and French-speakers, harking back to France’s 1763 surrender of its colony to Britain. There are persistent Francophone threats to break up the Canadian union.

As in the U.S., the Catholic Church has long been by far Canada’s biggest denomination. Not long ago, its heartland in French-speaking Quebec was devoted to a notably powerful conservative Catholicism. The 1960s changed that, and by 2011 a mere 17 percent of Quebeckers said they attended worship at least monthly. The U.S. Catholic future, both Spanish- and English-speaking, seems brighter.

The reporter’s starting place on all this is Pew Research’s 2013 report “Canada’s Changing Religious Landscape,” the source of the data above.

But be aware of mathematical fog on both sides of the border.  Denominations’ own statistics were compiled in the “Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches,” but it counted only Christians -- and hasn’t appeared the past five years. The U.S. Census has long since dropped religious questions.

In Canada, each decade through 2001 the Census asked residents about religion on the mandatory “long form,” replaced in 2011 by a less exact and voluntary “National Household Survey.”

Religious preferences count even if respondents weren’t “currently a practicing member,” so vague identities inflate statistics. A “no religion” option was offered. The survey invited write-ins on identity but specified only the 13 largest faiths, in order of size: Catholic, United Church, Anglican, Muslim, Baptist, “Greek Orthodox” (presumably covering all Orthodox), Hindu, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Sikh, Buddhist and Jewish.  

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